Editor’s Note: this post contains transphobic language and content that may bother some readers.
By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
UPDATE: This morning, Robert Portogallo, owner of Protogallo’s Peppers N’at responded to the controversy with the following written statement: “I have removed all of the Dr. Levine posts on my Facebook page and personal page. My intent was not to upset anyone but to get a laugh out of the situation. If people found my humor to be in poor-tasted I apologize to those individuals I am sorry if I offended anyone with these posts.”
Begin Original Story:
A Braddock restaurant owner is being criticized for Facebook posts in which he wears a wig and “impersonates” Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, a trans woman.
Robert Portogallo, the owner of Portogallo’s Peppers N’at, has a number of posts in which he dresses in a blonde wig and pretends to be Dr. Rachel Levine. One includes side-by-side photos of Portogallo and Dr. Levine. Over one of the posts, Portogallo marks his status as “feeling amused.” Others are videos of Portagallo wearing the wig and dancing around his store. The posts were made Friday on Portogallo’s personal Facebook Page which is public. As of Sunday night, the posts were still up.
Others were not even close to amused.
“I will never return to Portogallo’s because of some recent bigoted posts made by Robert Portogallo on his personal page,” wrote vocalist and artist Phat Man Dee (also known as Mandy Kivowitz) “As a musician, I know how important it is to accept and celebrate people for who they are, and not insist they change to fit my limited understanding of the world. I am sorry the owner doesn’t feel the same way. I will absolutely not be returning until he makes a public apology to Dr. Levine and the trans community.”
Braddock resident and educator Janet Wilson Carter wrote: “Poor form…poor taste. And this is not the first time this person has made highly offensive and even, racially charged comments. I, for one, will never spend a dime in this ‘establishment’ and I certainly wouldn’t recommend any of my friends, acquaintances, or family members spend their money there, either. Braddock is a lovely town, but all it takes is one rotten apple to halt positive movement.”
The Current also reached out to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who not only works directly with Dr. Levine, but is the former mayor of Braddock.
“I have the daily honor and privilege of serving with Dr. Levine. We are lucky to have her in our service. Her actions have undoubtedly saved many lives in PA.,” Fetterman wrote. “Mocking a person’s self-identity is deeply harmful and should have no place in a civil society.”
Jerry Dickinson, a candidate for the 18th Congressional District, released the following statement: “Dr. Levine’s leadership and guidance throughout this crisis has been a pivotal component of the state’s response to this pandemic and has likely saved the lives of many Pennsylvanians. We are fortunate to have her as our Secretary of Health at a time when people are looking for leadership, honest information, and compassion.
“Robert Portogallo’s online bullying of Dr. Rachel Levine is disgraceful. This behavior is unacceptable and must not be tolerated. It’s really important that we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to profiling of individuals associated with the crisis. This is just something we need all to avoid. As a community, we must denounce transphobia and always strive to be stronger than hate.”
Under the posts, dozens of people laughed at Portagallo’s posts and crucified anyone who tried to point out why the posts were wrong. Many intentionally used the wrong pronoun when referring to Dr. Levine. For his part, Portogallo continued to claim his comments were jokes and didn’t especially care who took issue with it. The Current attempted to reach out to Portogallo via his Facebook page late Sunday night. He repeatedly told those who took issue with his posts to “chill out”
Portogallo sent the following statement to the Pittsburgh Current Monday Morning: “I have removed all of the Dr. Levine posts on my Facebook page and personal page. My intent was not to upset anyone but to get a laugh out of the situation. If people found my humor to be in poor-tasted I apologize to those individuals I am sorry if I offended anyone with these posts.”
Portogallo also didn’t seem to care about the effect his posts could have on his business, despite advice from a fellow small business owner.
Facebook user Ephie Flowers wrote: “Mess with Dr. Levine, mess with me! If the owner thinks Covid has negatively affected his business, he’s gonna love knowing that he further drove it into the ground with hatred and ignorance.”
However, according to another of Portogallo’s post, he apparently doesn’t care. We will update this story as more information becomes available.